Stalking Swahili Poetry

Before 15, poetry wasn’t something I particularly liked; it was just an unfortunate thing I couldn’t avoid like algebra and matrices. The kind of poetry tested in exams was the complex type that was (I’m sure of it) trying to prove what a dumb teenager you were for not being able to decipher the mind of a poet (as though poets are the simplest of beings!)

Shakespeare for one was a name to reckon with and yet I found myself scowling upon his verses. I didn’t get the fuss then, and I don’t now.

Knowing what I know now however, I suspect my dislike of Shakespearean poetry had a lot to do with it’s similarities to Swahili poetry I’d read; the rigidity in style, the big words stylized into vocabulary whose meaning you couldn’t get in a normal dictionary, the unnecessary complexity…it was too much for the teenage me.

English poetry however got saved by my teacher, Mr.Nyangweso, at his introducing me to poems like Song of Lawino and my first favorite poem, Letter from a Contract Worker. It was a breath of fresh air to learn that in verse, there existed stories of interest; and it was poetry anthologies such as Sunburst that further fed my newfound enthusiasm.

Swahili poetry however would wait till Form 4. By that time I was familiar with free verse, yet even with the formal structure done away with, Swahili free verse poems I read were plain irritating and hard to understand (Ask anyone who did their KCSE in 2009. That poem in that exam was put there to make sure we failed)

Reading Utengano transformed my loathing for Swahili poetry because it was in that novel that I found the very first Swahili poem I actually copied onto my journal for keeps.

Utengano is a novel that  tells the story of Maimuna, a teenage girl who runs away from an abusive home, only to fall into the more cruel hands of the world. I identified a lot with her; coming from a dysfunctional home myself, and I loved the story because of it’s honesty on dysfunctional homes and runaway kids.

The book features quite a number of poems and in the poem Wasia, I found, for the first time ever, a straight thinking adult who challenged the notion of parents always being right. That was a huge deal because Swahili poetry- a majority of which still remains rigid- is very huge on unquestionable respect of the young to elders.

Wasia however was more concerned with expressing feelings rather than give instruction; and that’s exactly how I love my poetry.

And because I loved it so much, I’m sharing it below together with a translation (don’t be too harsh. I’m a beginner 😝)

Since I’ve come across more Swahili poetry of interest, I intend to share more in future posts in addition to other favorite poems I’ve read so far. Enjoy!

WASIA- from Utengano by Said A. Mohamed

Mama – ewe mama!
Nakumbuka kama leo: uliponamba
“Moyo…Moyo uushindilie
Usitamani vya watu!”
Lakini n’lipotazama
Vyangu vinatamaniwa
Na tena vinachukuliwa
Na kumbe ‘tamani’ – pumzi za ulimwengu!

Mama – ewe mama!
Nakumbuka kama leo: uliponamba
“Mwana…Na uwe msamehevu
Kwa wanaokukosea!”
Lakini nlipotazama
Nilizidi kukosewa
Na tena ninaonewa
Na kumbe usamehevu- bado haujazaliwa

Mama – ewe mama!
Nakumbuka kama leo: uliponamba
“Mwana…mwana nenda ukicheka,
Siinunie dunia!”
Lakini nilipotazama
Ni  mimi n’nonuniwa
Na kisha nabaguliwa
Na kumbe kicheko- sisi hatujaumbiwa!

Mama – ewe mama!
Nakumbuka kama leo: uliponamba
“Mwana…himili mwana himili,
Himili uile mbivu”
Lakini nilipotazama
Kila siku nala mbovu
Na tena kwa maumivu
Na kumbe uvumilivu- ni mzigo wa balaa

Mama, mama nimeshamaiza
Nimetambua ya kwamba
Tamani imezaliwa; itaishi nasi
Moyo unaolemewa, haukinashuki – kwani unanajisiwa
Dunia si samehevu; na haijapata hiyo kuwa ;
Mama na kwamba:
Kuna wanolia, katika wanaocheka
Basi siwezi, katu siwezi- wasia kushika.


TEACHINGS ( translation of Wasia)
Mother- oh mother
I recall
Like it were today I remember when you told me
“The heart…stave off the heart
Desire not what belongs to others”
But I looked around and I realized
The things I own are lusted after
And they’re taken away too
And ‘desire’ I found, is the very breath of the universe

Mother- oh mother
I recall
Like it were today I remember when you told me
“Child…be forgiving
To those that wrong you.”
But I looked around and realized
I am wronged again and again
And even more, I’m oppressed
And forgiveness it seems, is a thing unborn

Mother- oh mother
I recall
Like it were today I remember when you told me
“Child…spread laughter wherever you go child,
Never frown at the world.”
But looking around, I realized
I’m the one that’s frowned upon
And further, discriminated against
And laughter I discovered, was not made for us

Mother- oh mother
I recall
Like it were today I remember when you told me
“Take heart child..take heart
Persevere and you shall reap an abundance of ripe bounty”
But I observed and I noticed
Each day I ate only what’s stale
And all in bitterness and pain
And lo! patience, is a load too wearisome to bear

Mother, dear mother , I have thought it through
And I have discovered that
Desire was born; and shall long live with us
A heart endlessly burdened knows no relief
For it is defiled
The world is not forgiving; it has never been so
And mother that
There are those who weep, amidst those laughing heartily
And for that I cannot, will not ever, follow these your teachings


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